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September 20, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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Radical academia

Half the time I think being a postgrad student is the best thing ever. Life revolves around sitting in your office, drinking endless cups of coffee, reading (ostensibly) fascinating articles. The rest of the time I spin 180 degrees and consider postgrad-ship the crappiest thing ever, for exactly the same reasons. There’s that feeling of inaction, of futility, of being in a perpetual bubble of intellectual liberalism.

Before I began my tertiary education, it was easy to imagine university life as the following: intense wine-infused political debates after late-afternoon lectures; getting involved in student protest actions; carrying out research that actually has an impact on the real world. Admittedly, aspects of this romanticised vision have finally materialised, but it strikes me that, in general, university is not the veritable bastion of free-thought it could be. Victoria doesn’t have a culture of community, let alone student activism.

Educatory theorist Paulo Freire wrote of “education as the practice of freedom”. Is that what we’re trying to achieve in our musty lecture halls and bustling libraries: freedom? I’m no Arts major, but if I understand correctly, Freire was saying that encouraging critical thinking in education can lead to resisting oppression in everyday life. We could ask what this means for our depoliticised tertiary institutions, run as corporate bodies, the ideal post-graduation outcome being a well-paid job, if we’re lucky. Like a bad one-night stand, university tends to leave one unsatisfied, wishing that it’d just end so you can skulk away.

Does it have to be like this? Surely it’s possible to use our (dearly paid for) time at university to confront and change society? Yes, we can ask for a side-serving of activism on our curricular main course, but we can also confront issues from within our text strewn, all-nighter-induced academic haze. To misquote Noam Chomsky: if we consider university a place of privilege which confers an array of opportunities, then we have a responsibility to critique and challenge society.

Okay, we’ve done some mild theorising; now we need to work out how to put ‘radical academia’ into practice. With some handy Google Scholar-ing I gathered a few tips, such as voicing alternative viewpoints in our disciplines, reflecting on our privileged places within our research, and making our research relevant and understandable to the real world.

We write and talk about theory, but it’s rare that we attempt to live it. Although it may be difficult to live theory if you’re, say, a geologist, research within many disciplines has the capacity to record and create social change. But for real transformation to occur we need institutional metamorphosis; we need to challenge the paths our universities have taken. We can participate instead of being bystanders; we can drink copious cups of coffee and still have an impact on the outside world. Can’t we?

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